The man on the loudspeaker counted down from 10.

“Nine. Eight. Seven.”

The soldiers aboard the USS Rendova aircraft carrier rolled their knees up to their chests.

“Six. Five. Four.”

They folded their faces into their arms, eyes pressed closed.

“Three. Two.”

“When they said ‘One,’ it was like somebody put a hot blanket on your back,” Willard Dietrich remembers. “Then they counted one back up to 10.”

He stood up on the flight deck and looked out toward the little island in the Enewetak Atoll. It was gone.

“Then about 20 seconds later, you could see (the cloud),” he said. “Wow, what a huge cloud of fire. You could see it up there I don’t know how far. It was boiling hot.”

In 1952, now-86-year-old Alliance- native Willy Dietrich witnessed the largest ever hydrogen bomb detonation to date. It remains the fourth largest such explosion in American history.

It took five minutes for the shockwave to hit the boat.

“You could see this ripple going over top the water,” he said. “Then the sound hit us and it just shook that carrier. It was the loudest bang I’d ever heard.

“I don’t know how to really describe it, but I don’t ever want to hear it again, that’s for sure.”

Two weeks later, on the same atoll in the Marshall Islands, he witnessed another detonation. This time, it was an atomic bomb.

“The atomic bomb could be like holding a ladyfinger in your left hand,” he said, while a hydrogen bomb would be like holding “an M-80 in your right hand. It would level everything. There was nothing left of the island.”

Dietrich served for the Navy in Operation Ivy just after the Korean War. He’s one of a shrinking number of “atomic veterans,” who witnessed the country’s nuclear bomb tests firsthand and have the scars to show it.

After Dietrich left the Navy, he returned home to Alliance where he raised a family with his wife, Karen, and worked primarily as a locomotive engineer for BNSF Railway for 35 years.

In the years following his tour in the North Pacific, he has suffered a long list of health issues, all on the right side of his body, which faced the blast.

He has battled ear cancer, laryngeal cancer and cancer of the lymph nodes. He’s had a neck dissection and a collarbone removed, all, he says, as a result of radiation from the blast.

“It has just been one thing after another,” said Dennis Laughlin, veterans service officer for Box Butte County Veterans Services.

Laughlin has been trying to get Dietrich aid for his health issues. Getting certain payments for atomic blast-related issues, he said, requires documents from decades worth of doctor’s visits, which is difficult to round up.

Despite the pain he endured as a result, witnessing those two blasts in the Enewetak Atoll was an experience he wouldn’t trade, Dietrich said. He’s proud to say he was there.

“But I sure as hell don’t want to be on either one of those again.”